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Sometimes the simplest treatment can be the most effective: So when your grandmother (or brother, or the neighbor at the dog run who sees you sniffling into your sleeve) suggests you keep a pot of tea close at hand when you’re fighting off a cold, listen up!
This ancient home remedy has been helping cold-sufferers feel better for thousands of years. There are several reasons why: Firstly, the hot liquid can soothe your throat and break up congestion. The chemical makeup of those tasty leaves is also key: “Tea catechins are natural antioxidants,” says Tara Tomaino, RD, nutrition director at The Park. “Antioxidants work in the body to protect cells from free radical damage. Drinking tea regularly may help ease cold symptoms if you happen to get sick.”
But one of the most important healing functions of tea may simply be that it keeps you hydrated, says Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, author of Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked). “When you’re sick, eat high-water fruits and veggies and drink a ton of fluids — at least 10 cups per day from unsweetened sources, including tea,” London says. P.S. If you squeeze a lemon into your cup, you get a burst of vitamin C, which may reduce the duration of your cold.
Here are the best teas for cold or flu symptoms:
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Just a few sips of peppermint tea can start to make you feel better. The menthol in the peppermint leaves can have a slight anesthetic effect on your throat, suppressing your cough (which is why peppermint appears in many cough drops). Plus, scientists from the USDA report that when tested in a lab, peppermint has been found to have significant antimicrobial and antiviral activities. While we don’t know for sure if those lab results translate to humans, a cup of minty tea certainly couldn’t hurt!
The dried flowers of chamomile have been used for centuries to help lull you to sleep — flavonoids from the plant have a tranquilizing effect. Since getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of your cold-recovery mission, chamomile is an excellent choice. There is also some evidence the tea acts as an anti-inflammatory, so sip away.
Echinacea comes from a purple flower found in North America and is used by Great Plains tribes as a traditional cure. Studies have shown that taking echinacea as a supplement can cut your chances of catching a cold by up to 58%, and can reduce the length of your cold by more than a day. Brewing it as a tea is potentially a tasty way to get all that protective goodness.
Ginger tea is a favorite with singers to soothe their throats — the bioactive ingredients in it act as an anti-inflammatory and may also inhibit microorganisms that can lead to infection. And if your cold comes with an upset tummy, ginger is also known to relieve nausea. “At the first sign of a cold or flu, I always make a pot of strong ginger tea,” says Bill Rawls, MD, co-founder and medical director of Vital Plan. “Ginger is a potent antiviral and anti-inflammatory agent. Plus, it’s available fresh in any grocery store.”
Like other small, dark berries, elderberries are filled with health-boosting antioxidants, ranking even higher than cranberry and blueberry for polyphenol content. Studies with elderberry syrups and extracts have shown they can reduce the length and severity of cold and flu symptoms; we love the flavor sipped in a fruity tea.
This might sound a little gross, but slippery elm bark is known for having a lot of mucilage: a sticky, gel-like substance that can soothe an itchy, sore throat. In fact, according to the National Institutes, you may find slippery elm among the active ingredients in throat lozenges. So if you want to take a break from those cough drops, you may want to try sipping on this calming brew.
If you like something on the sweeter side, you might enjoy licorice root tea. Licorice root, or Glycyrrhiza glabra, is a popular herbal remedy in Chinese medicine. It’s typically used to treat gastrointestinal issues like heartburn, but research has shown that licorice root has antimicrobial and antiviral qualities which could help in getting over a nasty cold.
Like slippery elm, marshmallow root contains mucilage that will calm an irritated throat. In 2020, researchers who were looking at the effects of marshmallow root discovered that the herb also has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties — even more reason to enjoy this mild tea when you’re feeling a bit under the weather.
Green tea has many health benefits that can support your body in fighting off infection. It’s high in antioxidants and has antiviral qualities, and while more studies need to be done to really say, there’s some evidence that green tea could help to prevent the flu and the common cold. “Green tea contains epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG),” Tomaino explains. “This powerful antioxidant makes green tea an excellent choice to sip throughout cold and flu season.” Pour us a mug, please!
As mentioned above, lemon’s cold-fighting power comes from its abundance of vitamin C. You can squeeze it into your favorite herbal blend if you’d like, but you can also just squeeze half a lemon into hot water to make your own “tea” of sorts. Lemon water is super sour, so for taste’s sake, you may want to stir in some of your favorite honey.
How does tea help a cold?
Hot tea can attack a cold on several fronts: First, the hot liquid can soothe your throat and break up congestion. But just as important, the tea leaves themselves contain a complex spectrum of chemical substances called phytochemicals. “The plant produces these substances to protect its cells from free radicals, toxic substances, radiation and a wide range of microbes,” says Dr. Rawls. “It’s a defense system similar to our immune system. When we consume the complex phytochemistry of an herb, we gain those benefits.”
What’s better for a cold: hot or cold tea?
While hot tea can help break up congestion and feel soothing on a sore throat, cold tea also has its benefits. Some research has found steeping the tea for a longer amount of time in cold water may increase the antioxidant benefits. In the end, the best way to drink tea is the way you prefer it!
What’s the best tea for a cough?
While any hot tea will sooth a scratchy throat, peppermint tea can help suppress a cough, slippery elm tea can help coat your throat, and ginger tea has traditionally been used by singers to soothe raspy throats. To max the cough-soothing benefit of your cuppa, stir in a few drops of honey, which is a natural cough suppressant. “Let the tea steep for several minutes before adding the honey—water that is too hot can destroy the health benefits,” suggests Tomaino.
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